Soliciting Trustees for Annual Fund Gifts

Posted on 05/01/2022

Asking for a gift from a trustee—or any group of key leadership volunteers—is a delicate business, particularly when it comes to soliciting annual gifts. Ideally, the expectations for trustees’ annual giving are clearly outlined and understood, especially in advance of a trustee joining the board or signing capital campaign commitments.

Many institutions encourage their board to give early in the fiscal year to lead by example and inspire other constituency groups. Being able to share 100% board participation can be especially effective when soliciting other leadership donors. Other good opportunities to reach out are the end of the calendar year or the end of the fiscal year, as this helps produce an urgency to reach that 100% participation mark.

Some institutions communicate with trustees as annual giving leaders, asking them to set an example for other leadership donors. They might ask for a specific amount or use gift society levels to imply the expected level of support (e.g., “remain a current member of the President’s Circle”). Other institutions discuss trustee giving in more generic terms. They might ask that trustees include the institution “among their top few philanthropic priorities”, or request a set percentage of total annual fund support come from trustees. While it can vary from one institution to the next, it’s not uncommon for trustee gifts to account for a quarter to a third (or more!) of total annual fund revenue in a given year. 

Even when clear expectations are in place, the advancement team needs to go through the process of soliciting trustees when it’s time for them to make their gift. The best way to do this is not to include them in general mailings or appeals (as standard practice, trustees and key volunteer leaders should be excluded from all generic annual fund appeal lists), but instead send special, customized solicitations. Trustees are an important group, and their appeals warrant the highest level of personalization.

Even when it’s highly customized, a mailed appeal should never be the first time your trustees are hearing about annual fund giving. Institutional leadership should be talking to them regularly, both as a group and individually, about the annual fund. Those conversations lay the groundwork, explaining how the annual fund is defined, its past results, and its overall impact on the institution. After your trustees have a strong appreciation for the value of the annual fund, you’ll be ready to make your appeal—and, more importantly, they will be ready to receive it.

Here are a few simple steps to take to make sure your team is maximizing your trustees’ annual fund solicitations year over year: 

  1. Schedule time to meet with your Chief Advancement Officer about trustee giving. Make sure that you are on the same page in terms of how asks will be communicated to trustees and that you have a plan in place not only for producing the appeal but also for preparing your trustees to respond positively. This should be the first step in your trustee solicitation process and occur twice during the year, in early fall and again in spring. 
  2. Determine the right annual fund ask. Start by generating a list of trustees’ basic biographical information and recent giving (be sure to break out total giving or any campaign commitments from annual fund support!). Review the list with prospect managers to determine appropriate ask amounts and identify anyone who should be withheld for even more special handling.
  3. Identify the most appropriate solicitor or signatory for the appeal. Ideally, this would be a fellow trustee, but other key volunteers, like a campaign committee chair or the annual fund chair, could also be a good choice. Steer clear of asking a staff leader or the president to sign since these individuals are typically accountable to the board.
  4. Draft your appeal. Start by focusing on the big picture when making your case. Describe your annual fund’s impact and offer critical data points to support the ask, such as the percentage of annual fund support that has come from trustees in the past and the goal for the current year. Continue to educate your trustees by reiterating how the annual fund differs from other types of support like the endowment, capital investments, or planned gifts. 
  5. Produce and send the letter. This may seem easy, but it is no less important. Manage the production process in-house instead of relying on a vendor so that the appeal letter can be reviewed closely and personalized with ink signatures and handwritten notes. Consider additional touches that will highlight its importance, such as sending it via priority mail or using a larger envelope. Be sure to include a response vehicle and a pre-stamped reply envelope addressed to the head of the annual fund or other senior advancement staff member.

One of the most important things an annual fund can do is to solicit support from your institution’s key volunteers, which is why these appeals need to be carefully planned and executed. When done strategically and thoughtfully, solicitations of trustees can have a tremendous impact on your annual giving program.

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